A wide-ranging survey of country cool.
Ashley Monroe has quickly built a reputation as a strong collaborator for an eclectic group of artists.
She's part of the Pistol Annies with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley, as well as Jack White's Third Man House Band. She's had hits with Blake Shelton and Vince Gill.
So it shouldn't come as a shock that her sophomore album, "The Blade" (Warner Nashville), is all over the country musical map. What does surprise, though, is how well Monroe handles the wide variety of styles.
The first single "On to Something Good" is a sunny slice of '70s AM country, with its sweet harmonies and laid-back guitar groove. "Bombshell" takes the same sound and twists it into something far darker, but equally compelling, as Monroe declares, "I can't love you any more."
She dives back even further for "Winning Streak," tapping into the Elvis Presley and The Jordanaires sound of the '50s to tell her bad luck tales over rollicking piano riffs. ("If losing's a game," she sings sweetly, "I'm on a winning streak.") The heartbreaking "If the Devil Don't Want Me" is another clever throwback to that era.
However, Monroe is no nostalgia act. Though the inspirations are clearly decades old, she puts her own twist on them to keep things contemporary. With the guitar-driven "If Love Was Fair," she could easily fit in with the Colbie Caillats and Rachel Plattens. However, like pals Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, Monroe has more of an edge than her pop singer-songwriter counterparts.
"The Blade" title track combines all of Monroe's various interests and turns it into something new and dramatic, with a memorable, wrenching chorus. On "Dixie," she adds a bit more Dolly Parton to her delivery to unite several generations of country as well.
On "The Blade," Monroe is still sorting out her own sound, but who can complain when that process is so compelling?
THE GRADE B+